Just over a month into 2023, the Pirates sit 1.5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the NL Central. Not something you expected to hear, right?
Their 20-12 record so far has been supported by breakthroughs up and down their roster. With Bryan Reynolds taking the next step to stardom, the handful of young players becoming productive regulars, and even the return of Pirates legend Andrew McCutchen, this Pirates team has become a fun surprise to watch night in and night out. Even though the presumed franchise cornerstone O’Neil Cruz went down with an injury, the Pirates have not skipped a beat so far.
While the bats have always shown promise, the Pirates’ pitching staff has been the biggest surprise. It has taken a big step forward despite relatively low-profile free agency signings and a lack of can’t-miss prospects. Through April of this year, the Pirates have given up 108 runs, which ranks 8th best in baseball. Across the same number of games last year, the Pirates gave up 147 runs, which ranked 28th. They have significantly improved their rotation, and they could potentially return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Even though a .625 win percentage may not last the whole season, there is reason to believe a winning record should be a very attainable goal.
Player Development Changes
Arguably the biggest change that can help sustain these improvements is the organizational change that Pittsburgh has endured over the last few years. From the front office down to the minor league coaching, the Pirates organization was often considered archaic or out of touch by fans, media, or even former players. The Chris Archer trade and the Gerrit Cole trade are both hard to look back on outside of the acquisition and further trade of Joe Musgrove (which did net them David Bednar and Endy Rodriguez). According to a former minor leaguer, the organization previously had a large set of rules for players, unlike any other organization in baseball. Additionally, they forced players to fit a certain mold and would bury players in the lower levels if they did not adapt.
After a 69-93 2019 season, the team fired long-time GM Neal Huntington and long-time manager Clint Hurdle. It was clear that they were attempting a new approach when hiring GM Ben Cherington. At the minor league level, the difference was night and day according to Aaron Shortridge, current AA pitcher for the Pirates, who was part of the last draft class by Huntington. Comparing the two regimes, Shortridge stated, “We’re a lot less controlled now—it’s less militaristic—a lot of guys don’t miss that. It’s player-centered, and I think that helps a lot of the guys be more comfortable.”
At the big league level, Cherington and manager Derek Shelton brought in Oscar Marin, then-current bullpen coach for the Texas Rangers. Marin had a background in analytics and biomechanics, which resulted in current-age ideas finally breaking into the Pirates clubhouse. Former reliever Kyle Crick explained the new approach. “It’s pretty much like, ‘Here. This is what everybody else has. This is what they’re going to look at, and this is how we analyze it. You can use it if you want.’ It’s knowledge that isn’t forced, I’m used to the lack of the knowledge,” said Crick. Having the option of analytics is useful and essential, but not having it forced on players who may not want it is also crucial.
One of the first moments that might’ve opened people’s eyes to the organizational changes in Pittsburgh was Mitch Keller’s electric bullpen with Tread Athletics in early 2022. Keller turned around from a guy who posted a 6.17 ERA in 2021 to a 3.91 ERA in 2022. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was a sign of life for a team that has struggled in developing pitchers.
The overall trend with Pirates starters this year is one with a modern philosophy: sliders, sliders, and more sliders. Their 24.2% slider usage as a team ranks second in all of baseball, only trailing the Giants.
I’ll continue with Mitch Keller, who has continued to make developments as a 27-year-old. Keller currently has a 3.31 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and a 20.3% K%-BB%, which all blow his career numbers out of the water. The peripherals all suggest this is not a fluke either.
His strikeout percentage is carrying the K%-BB% improvements, as he’s increased his K% by 6% to a 27.9% clip. Mix that with more first-pitch strikes (more strikes in general, too) and weaker contact, and here we have Mitch Keller finally living up to the expectations we once held. Between 2021 and 2022 (in line with his help from Tread), he dropped the use of his fastball and added a sweeper. In 2023, he returned to using the cutter as well, but much more strategically than in years past (usage is identical to 4S in the graphic, but hard to see).
The cutter gives Keller a legitimate option to use against lefties, and he has yet to truly turn to the sinker vs. LHB. Lefties only have a .292 wOBA against Keller this season, which is far below the previous best mark at .332. The sweeper has also been a key new addition against RHB, which helps bolster the effectiveness of the fastball. Keller has made the necessary changes to succeed at the big-league level, and it’s likely that he can continue to produce.
Roansy Contreras is another pitcher they need to take a leap in development in order to keep winning, but he seems like a prime candidate for a bit of regression. A 4.09 ERA and 3.66 FIP are serviceable for an above-average offense, but his peripherals do not inspire confidence, even for a young pitcher. First and foremost, Contreras’ fastball has regressed in velocity each consecutive year. From a debut at 96mph in 2021, he now sits at 94mph in 2023. While that could improve as it warms up, the fastball itself has been horrid.
Contreras’ fastball has a severe lack of swinging strikes and chases, and it’s being hit almost every time a batter puts a swing on the pitch. Not having a viable fastball can derail an entire arsenal, even if the slider and curveball are promising pitches.
Contreras has been primarily throwing the slider this year (48%), but it is still not getting enough strikes. A 15% increase in usage has been paired with a 7% increase in zone rate, but a 41% zone rate is still in the 45th percentile among starters and it has come at the expense of whiffs. A 32.7% CSW% is a good figure, but the pitch is still inconsistent. Contreras has seen a slight downtick in strikeouts but his walk rate has ballooned to 11%. The fastball velocity is critical for Contreras as the offspeed pitches are promising, but regression is likely even though he has managed to survive a decently hard schedule.
Acquired from the Cardinals last year, Oviedo was seemingly forgotten as an intriguing arm once he arrived in Pittsburgh. After putting up a 4.78 ERA as a starter in 2022, Oviedo came out hot with a 2.22 ERA in his first four starts, including a 10-strikeout game against his former team.
Regression has hit him hard in his two most recent starts against the Dodgers and Nationals, upping his ERA to 4.78, but there is potential similar to Contreras. Oviedo is now a slider-first pitcher, which makes up for the fact that his fastball is underwhelming. The fastball isn’t as bad though, a 26.2% CSW% is just below average and is good at generating weak contact.
However, Oviedo’s slider and curveball are filthy. Both have a CSW% north of 33% and can be legitimate options with command of the fastball. Oviedo has been a bit unlucky on BABIP compared to his career numbers but I do think that he can yield a 4.00ish ERA over the course of the season. He has shown the blueprint for success and his ability to show effectiveness against both-handedness hitters. It also helps that he has underperformed on his 3.83 FIP and .302 xwOBA, which continues to point towards moderate improvements.
Is this finally Vince Velasquez’s year? After whiffing on multiple “sleeper” seasons, Velasquez is finally having a season that is showing why he was a popular sleeper pick year in and year out: his stuff is good, he just needs to effectively use it. The Pirates were mocked for dropping a hype video upon signing, but a 3.06 ERA and 1.18 WHIP are making fans do a double-take on Velasquez.
One of the joys of having a stronger player development structure is that these one-year veteran deals can work out (look at Jose Quintana last year). Velasquez cites his relationship with his pitching coach as “by far one of the best one-on-one relationships I can have with someone.” This has allowed him to refine his mechanics, embrace analytics, and have a better mindset going into starts.
The biggest change has been his slider, which now has more movement than ever and is being thrown more than ever. Above is the 2022 slider and below is the 2023 slider:
Velasquez’s slider is now thrown at the lowest velocity of his career (83mph), which is helping him get an extra 3 inches of drop and 2 inches of horizontal movement. Like the rest of the Pirates’ staff so far, he has spiked its usage and gotten quality results out of the pitch. A 33.9% CSW% and .194 wOBA are ridiculously good, and a crucial part of that is its effectiveness against lefties. Lefties are hitting just .080 on the pitch so far while it’s been Velasquez’s main secondary, compared to previous years where the batting average ranges from .300-.500.
He is currently putting up the best chase rate and SwStr% of his career, but the K% and BB% have not seen significant improvements. Velasquez may be a pleasant surprise and is definitely one to watch, but the current production may not continue as he does not really have a third pitch. The changeup is suspect, but there’s no reason to believe Velasquez can’t cruise against bad teams. To deflate hopes even more, he did go down with right elbow discomfort recently. Although he’s optimistic, it is always a tumultuous time when breaking ball first pitchers go down with elbow problems.
If the Pirates continue to play well into the summer, Rich Hill should not be a part of the rotation if the playoffs are in sight. The 43-year-old is finally seeing a drop off in his chase rate and SwStr%, indicating that the end may finally be near. His 1.39 WHIP is a continued ascent above his career 1.23 figure, and this all adds up to what maybe be the end of an era. Naturally, he has a not-horrible 4.18 ERA so far this year. All of the ERA estimators and projections systems see him as a 4.60+ ERA pitcher, and that should appear eventually.
Luis Ortiz should take this rotation spot, as he’s pitched to a 2.45 ERA in AAA so far and has a lethal fastball/slider combination.